Category Archives: Japan

Some European views of Japan in the nineteenth century

References to Japan in nineteenth-century newspapers in Australia are spasmodic and provide a very incomplete view of that country. The word ‘japanned’ occurs frequently in advertisements in connection with a variety of articles that were subjected to that lacquering process. As for the people, lifestyle and cultural achievements of Japan, there was a strong inclination to believe that European culture and attainments were significantly more advanced.

Thus in 1825 the Australian newspaper reprinted a letter to the editor of the Singapore Chronicle in which the writer commented on the language and ideas in several newspapers in the Australian colonies. According to the writer, the newspapers showed a range of regrettable linguistic developments in Australian English; however, they also offered evidence of ‘the rapid advancement of a country destined at some future day in all likelihood to alter the whole frame of society in Eastern Asia, and to give law to China and Japan.’

According to the Sydney Gazette in 1829:

In the island of Japan, we have the example of a people, who having attained a high degree of civilization and knowledge of the arts of life, have nevertheless abstracted themselves from intercourse with foreign nations. … There [in China], as in Japan, society appears to have attained a point at which all further progress and improvement have been arrested.

A small indication of the ignorance, or prejudice, which affected views on the ‘Far East’ may be found in an article on the history of printing, published in the Colonial Times in 1827, according to which Japan did not obtain the art of printing until the sixteenth century, subsequent to its invention in Germany in 1457.

There was, nevertheless, a recognition that Japan produced impressive manufactured goods. In the Sydney Monitor in 1828 a contributor is quoted as saying that Sydney is a place where,

… if you have but the money, you may procure any thing that convenience requires, and indulge if you please, the most capricious freaks of fancy, from the clumsiest Dutch toys, to the exquisite manufactures of China and Japan.

In quoting this passage the writer of the article disputes the possible implication that the items are widely available, but there is no criticism of the view that manufactures from China and Japan are typically, and in contrast to some items of European origin, ‘exquisite.’

Letter to the editor: ‘Comparisons are —’, Australian 20/10/1825, p. 2. Knowledge and civilization: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 10/3/1829, p. 2. Printing: Supplement to the Colonial Times 12/10/1827, p. 2. Manufactures: Sydney Monitor 23/8/1828, p. 3.

Japan, 15 June 1896: earthquakes and a tidal wave

In April 1892 the Adelaide Advertiser printed a description of ‘the great earthquake of 1891’ from a letter written by an agent of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company at Hiogo, Japan, and forwarded to the company’s Adelaide office. The writer described the earthquake as ‘the greatest seismic disturbance of the present century. The first and most severe shock occurred at 6.40 a.m. on October 28 and lasted about three minutes…’ During those few minutes nearly 10,000 people were killed and nearly 20,000 injured, and nearly 130,000 buildings were destroyed and over 50,000 partially destroyed (the writer gives exact figures).

The shock was accompanied by a low rumbling sound, the earth was violently shaken, and moved like the surface of a pool of water agitated by the wind, although the morning was perfectly bright and calm. … The earthquake was felt from Sendai in the north to Nagasaki in the south, over an area of 92,000 square miles, but most severely between Kobe and Tokio, the centre being the Nagoya-Gifu plain, one of the Japan’s great gardens.

Five years later there was another major upheaval, this time centred further to the north-east. By way of a ship that came directly from China and Japan, a report arrived in Australia a few weeks later of ‘the subsidence of a huge area off the northern coast of Japan.’

On Monday, the 15th June, the whole coastline of Iwate, Miyagi, and Aomori Prefectures, and of Rikuzen Province, a stretch of land measuring from 150 to 200 miles in length, was inundated by a tidal wave. Hundreds of houses have been swept away and probably thousands of lives lost. … There is unfortunately no room to doubt that the nation has to mourn a devastation almost, if not quite, equalling the terrible earthquakes in Central Japan in 1891.

The tidal wave was ‘preceded or accompanied by great seismic disturbances.’ The affected area stretched ‘from Sendai Bay on the south to Hachinohei and the eastern head of Aomori Bay on the north.’ The event was ‘a crushing catastrophe.’ Details to hand ‘suffice to make it clear that the country is face to face with little less than a national disaster. The feeling of the people is that the year promises to be a dark one.’

1891 earthquake: Advertiser (Adelaide) 23/4/1892, p. 4. 1896 earthquakes and inundation: quotations are from the report as printed in Sydney Morning Herald 21/7/1896, p. 6; see also Brisbane Courier 25/7/1896, p. 9.

Earthquakes in Japan: some nineteenth-century reports

Nineteenth-century newspaper reports show how gradual the process could be of assembling information about distant events, even in an age when communications were becoming more sophisticated. A reader might wait two months or more for an extended account of a major incident, and the report when it came might be, for all its striving for detail, rather sketchy. In the case of natural disasters, attempts to explain causes reflect the imperfect scientific knowledge of the day, and reveal a tendency to find in an event the work of a higher power and a pattern of responsibility and punishment.

Earthquakes in Japan were known to be frequent. Particularly large earthquakes in 1855 and 1891, for example, were remembered as exemplifying the susceptibility of Japan to major upheavals.

In December 1891 the Maitland Mercury reported a recent earthquake in Japan as affecting an enormous area and causing unprecedented havoc. As well as giving details of the scale of destruction, the article referred to the behaviour of the Japanese in response to the disaster:

To all this instantaneous and almost incredible ruin the Japanese oppose a cheerful and invincible fortitude. Panic there may have been during the fearful ten or twelve minutes while the land surged like a sea beneath their feet, and all the works of their hands toppled like a house of cards upon their heads. But in the midst of this widespread desolation and bereavement they maintain their customary demeanor, and accept the inevitable with laughing stoicism.

The writer sought to place the event in a longer historical perspective:

It is noted as a remarkable coincidence that the news of the terrible earthquake in Japan should be published in London on the 136th anniversary of the great Lisbon earthquake, when in about eight minutes most of the houses in the Portuguese capital and upwards of 50,000 inhabitants were swallowed up. The latest calamity in Japan brings up the total number of earthquakes and earthquake shocks recorded in the present century to about 130…

According to the article, the most fatal so far in the nineteenth century were those at Naples, 1805; Algiers, 1516; Aleppo, 1822; South Italy, 1851; Calabria, 1857; Quito, 1859; Mendoza (South America), 1860; Peru and Ecuador, 1868; Columbia, 1875; Cashmere, 1885; Corsica, Geneva and other towns, 1887; and Yun-nan, China, 1888. Even more destructive were earthquakes in preceding centuries at Naples, 1456; Schamacki, 1667; Sicily, 1693; and Jeddo, Japan, 1703. Among these the greatest loss of life occurred at Jeddo, when that city was ruined and some 200,000 people died.

Edo, also spelled Yedo, Yeddo and Jeddo, was the name of the city now called Tokyo.

In February 1892 the Mercury (Victoria) described the November 1891 earthquake in Japan in the light of details that had come to hand in the meantime. It was suggested that the earthquake was ‘the result of actual explosion somewhere in the bowels of the earth.’ Where the shocks were most severe, over an area of 500 square miles, nothing could withstand them; double that area was violently but less destructively shaken; ‘and even in the capital, 170 miles distant, the earth movements were of a kind to which there has been no parallel since the great Yeddo earthquake thirty-seven years ago.’

The Jeddo earthquake of 11 November 1855 was reported at length in the Perth Gazette eight months after the event. Some analysis was drawn from the San Francisco Herald:

… it is possible that the report exaggerates the real facts. Indeed, the destruction as given is so vast and appalling that one is tempted, through the sympathies of a common humanity, to doubt it and to hope for a less fearful account. But, when it is remembered that Jeddo is reported by some as containing a mil<l>ion of inhabitants, the wide-spread destruction is not impossible. It will be remembered that the Russian frigate Diana was wrecked [la]st year at Simoda by an earthquake, which was terrific and very destructiee [sic]. And it is said that at the same place the shock which was so destructive at Jeddo was severe.

The San Francisco Herald added:

The advent of the Americans, French, English, and Russians into Japan has been accompanied by natural phenomena of such an uncommon character that the Government and people may not very unnaturally connect the two as judgments sent upon them.

Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 22/12/1891, p. 5. Mercury and Weekly Courier (Victoria) 4/2/1892, p. 3. Jeddo, 1855: Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News 25/7/1856, p. 3.